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Kangaroo March takes the reins of history

RIDING IN MEMORY: Kangaroo Marchers Graham Brown and Neil Hughes approach the township of Illabo in the Riverina, past fields of canola. Photo: Graham Tidy.

 RIDING IN MEMORY: Kangaroo Marchers Graham Brown and Neil Hughes approach the township of Illabo in the Riverina, past fields of canola. Photo: Graham Tidy.

SOFT grey clouds throw shadows over a sea of green and yellow crops along the Kangaroo March route, where Des and Bubba carry two mounted men across a sodden ditch.

Five days into the re-enactment of the 1915 recruitment march from Wagga Wagga to Sydney, canola and wheat crops fill the farms that were stripped bare of their young men and best horses for the war effort.

Records say 136,000 horses, known as walers because they were originally sold through NSW, went to war.

Des, a 12 year-old Australian stock-horse, belongs to Graham Brown, and Bubba, a 7-year-old expacer, is Neil Hughes’s horse who left the track a year ago. The two Australian Light Horse Association members will ride them for 90 per cent of the 500km journey.

“People are coming out to their farm gates with water, or Anzac biscuits or apples or mandarins, even carrots for the horses,” Mr Brown said.

Unlike the original march in December, this one is in spring, to avoid the heat and harvest trucks that rumble through the Riverina.

A 1915 photograph of the march hanging in a hall in the Southern Highlands village of Exeter inspired residents Rhondda Vanzella and Mr Brown and his wife Jan to re-enact it.

“My vision, of riding it almost on my own has blossomed into something far, far bigger than I ever considered,” Mr Brown said.

Twenty five light horsemen will join them further along the Olympic Highway at Wallendbeen on Sunday, part of a large welcoming parade for the Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove, like 1915’s welcoming party, when Governor General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson met the volunteers.

Sir Ronald was a friend of Wallendbeen soldier Kenneth Mackay, who had previously recruited light horse volunteers, according to a descendant and Wallenbeen farmer, David Jacobs.

“When the referendums failed for conscription in World War I, and they needed to rally the troops, go out to country areas and bring people in to go to war, he was an obvious choice because he had already done that to raise a light horse in the first place back in 1895,” Mr Jacobs said.

“Mackay had been an exceptional soldier in the Boer War, he had raised a light horse army himself and therefore was a fitting choice to raise a recruiting march to generate interest, to create the fever, to make it all happen, that there was always food, people, always something in every town so people would enlist.”

Mr Jacobs says the Governor General’s visit acknowledges the significance of small country towns in Australian history and their deep connections to the past.

Rural families paid dearly for the war effort, while others like Major Les Willsallen stationed in Cairo with his wife, Pearl, made the most of it.

Taking his favourite horse Snoogles, he played polo and hunted foxes among the pyramids, and won the Order of the Nile after he and a handful of Australian cavalry charged and captured several hundred of the enemy. He also won the Distinguished Service Order.

From Gunnedah, Willsallen re-settled at Widgengully near Jugiong after the war. His descendants have loaned organisers a windfall of memorabilia, including his saddle.

Among walkers on the re-enactment, Ken Halliday of Goulburn said: “This is a one in 100 year opportunity, if we don’t do it, it will be forgotten.”

Michael Jones of Wagga Wagga is driving a four-wheel-carriage behind Sam, 14, and Annie, 4. Unlike Des and Bubba, the two clydesdales pulled like war horses when they struck that ditch.

With an admiring eye over their powerful hindquarters, Mr Jones said: “I’ve got high and low gear in four-wheel drive.”

Enlist now to march in the Kangaroo March Re-enactment.